Authors: Nikki Woods
“Queenie, those things weren't even dirty!” My cheeks warmed even more with the protest. Had she glimpsed my “friend” tucked in the far left corner of my overnight bag with the rest of my unmentionables?
Her hands kept right on moving. Squeak, squeak. Squish, squish. “Me knows that, Miss Kingston, but me just wanted to make sure.”
I couldn't argue with that logic so amidst another squeak, squeak and squish, squish, I switched subjects. “Queenie?” Squeak, squeak. Squish, squish.
“Hmmmmm,” she replied. Squeak, squeak. Squish, squish.
“Uncle Winston was telling me about Mama Grace's last days.”
She hummed again, which I translated to “spit it out” and wrung the excess water out of the sheets with hands almost crippled by painful arthritis.
“He said Damon came to visit her.”
“Awww! Yes, Miss Kingston. He was truly a blessing to Mama Grace. Yes, Ma'am, he was truly a blessing.”
“I guess I don't understand, Queenie.” I wanted her to explain it to me like I was a five-year-old. “Why was Damon here? I mean, I knew he was back on the island, but I thought he was in Montego Bay.” I paused, letting the conversation hang.
Queenie picked up the loose thread and ran with it. “Well, he lives just down the street so, ” she replied as if the answer was obvious. “He fixed up his grandfather's house so nice, ya' see, added three rooms and a beautiful parlorâturned it into a clinic for the community. His granddaddy would be so proud. Damon has grown into a fine young man.”
She hitched the tub of clean clothes up on her nonexistent hip, trudged over to the clothesline, and began hanging the sheets. She looked at the basket until she caught my gaze. Snorting, I picked up the end of a blue floral pillowcase with faded yellow daisies. So much for being the employer.
“Miss Grace asked for him to come and he did. Him come just as quick. Held her hand through the pain like it was his own mother. She didn't want anyone else to see her in such a state. So she called him. And he didn't hesitate. Yes, suh, that boy is a true blessing.”
My pillowcase hung crookedly and Queenie nodded at it. I rehung it, anxious for her smile of approval. Her smile didn't quite reach her eyes, but we continued to hang the clothes in silence.
“You look like a lost pup,” she said finally, putting her hand on the small of her back and stretching. “I know you have only me for company, but I can't take it anymore. Chile', why don't you go down there and thank Damon. I know Mama Grace would want you to. Plus, you just might make a new friend. I have some of those mangos I just picked from the tree that you can take to him. He loves Mama Grace's mangos.”
Go and thank him? Make a new friend? She couldn't possibly realize what she was saying, or did she? No, she couldn't possibly know.
I slung a purple bra over the clothesline then snapped a pin over it. I tried to keep the anxiety from my voice when I said, “I already know Damon, Queenie. Remember Joanne, his sister? We used to play together when we were little.”
Queenie looked up at the sky as if searching for an answer. “Oh yes, Ma'am. Now me remember. Well, there you go, even better. Now you can go catch up.”
I gnawed on my lower lip, feeling torn. I couldn't exactly tell Queenie why I didn't want to go see Damon. I didn't want to lie either.
Just as I was about to flat-out refuse to go, Queenie pushed my shoulder non-too gently. “ Go on, Chile'. He won't bite you and I'm just not going to be able to take you being up under me all day.”
“Yes, Ma'am.” I bit down hard to keep from saying anything else and walked along the gravel path that led to the house. “And fix yourself up. Put some makeup on.” She called at my back.
I raised a hand in acknowledgment, but grumbled, “I'm not putting on makeup just to walk down the street,” careful not to let Queenie hear. I stubbed my toe on a rock.
The gilded mirror hanging in the narrow corridor mocked me as I walked by. I doubled back and squinted at my image. With nothing on my face, I looked about thirteen years old. All
right, maybe a little bit of lip gloss. I nibbled on my lower lip and pinched my cheeks. And maybe a touch of blush.
I didn't want to care what Damon thought, but I did. I also didn't want to feel anxious about his reaction to me showing up at his house, but felt that as well.
I made a beeline for my suitcase. While searching for my makeup case, I spotted my new black Prada shorts that I had bought the previous summer in L.A. When I tried them on and pranced in the three-way mirror, I knew I had to buy them despite the one hundred seventy-five dollars price tag. They flattered my figure with rhinestones that danced across the bottom calling attention to my well-toned thighs. The cut of the material seemed to pull my stomach in and round my butt out. My female vanity kicked into overdrive and I slipped them on. I fingered a plain black t-shirt, but pulled the tube top that matched the shorts on instead. Finally, I brushed a touch of Lancome Glitter powder across my shoulders.
I dropped to my knees and ran my hand underneath the bed until I found my black stack sandals. Queenie must have pushed them under when she swept earlier this morning. I buckled the straps and studied my feet. The polish on the big toe on my right foot was chipped. A good pedicure should hold up better than this. I didn't expect to end up in Jamaica; so I had settled for a quickie job, thinking I had time later in the week. But once a Girl Scout, I was prepared. It only took me a minute to brush a new coat of Mardi Gras Red over each nail so they looked brand new.
Now for the hair. I pulled off the plastic band holding my hair, mussed it with my fingers until it fell gracefully around my shoulders, then added a bit of mousse to tame the flyaway tendrils at each temple. Preferring the natural look, I accented my lashes with just a touch of black mascara, MAC's gold bronzer across my cheeks, and Aveda's nude fantasy made my lips
kissable. I sprayed perfume on my pulse points and then once in the air. I walked through the mist before twirling in the mirror so I could critique myself from every angle. Satisfied, I blew a kiss at my image.
Right on cue, Queenie's callused, bare feet came padding down the hall. “My, my, my,”Queenie said, clicking her tongue as she peeked through the door to my grandmother's bedroom. I was standing in front of my grandmother'sâmy, I corrected myselfâarmoire. “You look like Cinderella off to de' ball.” She handed me a bag filled with ripe mangoes and dull green avocados. “Go on, now.” Queenie sucked her teeth as I hesitated, then pushed me toward the door. And with a ball of fire beginning to grow in my stomach, I went.
The sun had made it halfway through its orbit and the heat was merciless. In Kingston, cool breezes were few and I could already feel the skin at the nape of my neck growing moist. Kids were playing a modified game of cricket at one end of the street and a cart chase at the other. Motorcycles revved at the racetrack a few blocks over. I waved at a man selling flavored ice called ska juice in the vacant lot. Old ladies rocked in chairs on the porch, men worked shingling roofs, and babies played in their cribs in the front yard while their mothers tended to their gardens.
I trudged down the block to Damon's house, passing Maxwell Preparatory, the school my mother attended as a child. School was a generous term to describe the building, really just a house that was converted by a former nun who had been kicked out of the Convent for being too
rebellious. Mom told me that she was having an affair with one of the married parishioners and got caught.
Uniformsâleftover from the days of British ruleâwere status quo on the island. I still kept two faded pictures of my mother in her school uniformâone taken with her class, one standing alone. In both photos, she looked shy, head ducked and hair pulled away from her face in two ponytails with ribbons tied on the end.
Too young to get a job after graduation, my mother went to a trade school and learned typing, short hand, and literary works. She worked and put herself through nursing school, but then got pregnant with me. Disgraced at being an unwed mother, she fled to America. Whenever we returned to Kingston, she would walk me to Maxwell. Standing outside and with misty eyes, she would tell me that this life had been easy, when life had been good.
Now the school was in shambles with only one red brick wall remaining completely in tact. The other walls were covered in graffiti: names of popular reggae artists past and present such as Bob Marley, his son, Ziggy, Chakademus & Pliers, Bongo and Yami Bolo, political slogans, and misshapen hearts with the names of boys and girls scribbled inside them. I walked inside the dusty schoolyard and kicked some rocks. The flowers had long been dead and there were no footprints in the dirt. A little girl was running on her way to somewhere more important, about twenty-eight pigtails tied at the end with red ribbon bounced around her head. As she passed by, her hand accidentally brushed my leg. She smiled. I smiled back.
At six years old and with only two days carved out of my summer vacation, I was restless. I had already arranged and rearranged my dolls on the little twin bed that sat in the room just off the kitchen. The coloring books my aunt had sent for me were meant for someone much younger. Didn't she know I already knew how to color in the lines? Adults. They didn't have a clue.
The snacks that Mommy had packed were lined in the cupboard. I had already counted them twice this morning just to make sure no one was sneaking them but me. Pa-pa was taking his afternoon nap or I would have pestered him to teach me some more chess moves. Not that I really understood the game, I just loved spending time with him, one on one. He always made me feel like the most special little girl in the world and not just because he constantly told me, “ Kingston, you are the most special little girl in the whole wide world.” No, Pa-pa really cared about what I thought. He was the only grown-up who asked my opinion and then actually listened.
Normally, the majority of the summer would have been spent with Mammy, Mama Grace's mother, in Swift Riverâa little town that was nestled in the hills sitting opposite of the Blue Mountains.
All of my cousins would converge upon Mammy in phases: Lil' Winston, Stacia, Paulette, and Vivine would be there first. Next came Patrick, Pierre and Bianca. Finally, Adana, Andrew, and me.
This summer was different though. Mammy was sick and said her heart couldn't take the pressure of ten youngsters running through her house. The big Independence picnic wasn't going to happen until Augustâtwo months awayâand that was more than enough excitement for an old woman, she said. So this summer I had been sentenced to three solid months in Kingston. Only being paroled for two things: shopping and church.
Mama Grace did most of the shopping at Coronationâa large noisy open-air market. Higglers dragged loads of bounty from all over the island: breadfruits, bananas, coconuts, plantains, yams, etc., and you had to barter with them for a fair price. Depending on the day, plus the mood of the market, multiplied by the heat, Mama Grace either made out like a bandit or felt like a foolâgrumbling all the way home trying to come up with an excuse to give Pa-pa about why she went five dollars over budget.
Then, every Sunday, Mama Grace and I would walk to Coke Methodist Church on East Queen Street. Pa-pa never attended. He believed that most church folk were on the take and he could praise his God just as easily on his verandah while still wearing his short pants. My mother was not only baptized at Coke, but also confirmed and married there as well. I, too, was baptized there and hoped one day I would be married in the cathedral-style building. Occasionally, we'd go to a matinee if Pa-pa had the money, but those days stretched few and far between. So when
Mama Grace suggested that I go out and play, I just looked at her. When she suggested that I go play by myself, I looked at her as if she were crazy. When she looked at me as if I were the one that was crazy, I straightened up my face. Mama Grace didn't play when it came to those looks.
I skipped outside. Children were whooping and hollering, playing an intense game of cricket. I walked slowly down the sidewalk, trailing my hand over the iron rod fence and studying the flowers that had just started to bloom. I noticed someone following me, dancing in my shadow. I whirled around, fully intending to give this intruder a piece of my mind, but her elf-like grin stopped me cold.
“Hi,” she said simply.
“You Miss Grace's grandbaby.” It was more a statement than a question. She cocked her head to the side. I was much taller than she was and she had to look directly into the sun to see my face. I wondered if that was what caused her eyes to cross in such a funny way or if it was natural. She twirled. The slogan on her t-shirt read, “Somebody who loves me visited the Big Apple and all they brought me back was this lousy shirt.”
“My name's Kingston,” I spoke in the same voice I used with the elderly ladies in church, exaggerated politeness with saccharin sweetness dripping from every syllable. “What's your name?”
“Kingston?” She grabbed her stomach and doubled over with laughter. “K-K-K-Kin!” She was laughing so hard she couldn't even get my name out. My eyes narrowed with every hee-hee-hee. “Who named you that?” She finally asked and I thought she was stupid.
“My mother named me, who else? Who named you?”
“My granny. I don't know who my parents are. They left my brother and me with my grandparents. I don't miss âem though,” she said defiantly. “Why would I want someone who doesn't want me? I live with my grandparents and I know them real well.”
Suddenly we had something in common. “I don't know my daddy either,” I said.
She smiled. She was missing both of her front teeth and one on the bottom. “My name's Joanne.”
“Is that all you can say?”